Commentary

End Contribution Limits and Energize Democracy

In 1974 Rep. John Anderson (R-IL) led the GOP floor debate in support of the bipartisan Federal Election Campaign Act. He argued that in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam War, the two-party system was held in such low esteem by the American people that we were in danger of ending up with a European style multi-party system. The FECA, he said, would prevent that by shoring-up the two-party system. He didn’t need to explain to his colleagues how that shoring-up would take place.

Not only were strict contribution limits placed on federal campaigns, the 1974 act limited spending to just $70,000 for House races and $100,000, or eight cents per voter, for Senate races. In the wake of government abuse of power (Watergate and Vietnam), Congress responded by enhancing that power by chilling political debate and making it significantly more difficult for challengers to defeat incumbents. Fortunately, the Supreme Court struck down the spending limits as an infringement on the First Amendment right to free speech. Unfortunately, the court upheld the contribution limits, as though money raised has no relationship to money spent.

In any event, it is clear from any objective standard that we spend far too little on federal campaigns in the first place. Total direct spending for all congressional races in the 1994 election cycle was just $3 per eligible voter. Americans spend more money on yogurt each year than they spend on federal elections. Studies have always demonstrated that the more money that is spend on campaigns, the more knowledgeable voters are about the issues addressed in those campaigns. And as the Supreme Court noted in Buckley v. Valeo, “Advocacy cannot be proscribed simply because it may be effective.”

The hysteria that groups like Common Cause bring to the campaign finance reform debate is based on the faulty assumption that money buys candidates. But as Bradley A. Smith, author of a Cato Institute study on the subject writes, “Every systemic study conducted of legislative voting behavior has concluded that campaign contributions have little or no effect on that behavior.” Ideology, voter sentiment, and party discipline are correlated much more closely to voting behavior than sources of campaign contributions.

Indeed, departing Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), in complaining about how much time it takes to raise money for campaigns, told the Wall Street Journal last December, “I don’t worry about money influencing our votes. I don’t think that happens. But I worry about the energy it takes.” No wonder that she does, given the energy it takes to raise campaign contributions in $100 to $1000 (maximum!) chunks.

Furthermore, why should those with the capacity to enhance political discourse through significant campaign contributions be denied that option when we allow others to spend all they want, just because they chose the favored profession of the media or being a candidate? Whether one agrees or not with Ross Perot or Steve Forbes, it is hard to argue other than they have enhanced democracy through their efforts. And who would deny that the millions of dollars of free publicity that a Gary Trudeau, a Rush Limbaugh, or a Katherine Graham can give their favorite causes is not a healthy part of a free society?

Americans rightly oppose federal funding of federal elections. The best thing we can do to shake up our stagnant electoral process is eliminate campaign contributions altogether, have full disclosure, and thereby open to up the political process to a diversity of candidates now precluded from seeking office. (It’s worth noting in this respect that had the FECA been in effect in 1968 there is no way Eugene McCarthy, who received large contributions from Stewart Mott and other wealthy liberals, could have forced President Johnson out of the race.)

As Washington Post columnist and senior political reporter David Broder put it recently, the time has come to “challenge the conventional wisdom on this subject and urge politicians and pundits alike to think again before they saddle the country with another batch of ill-considered ‘reforms’.”

Edward H. Crane is president of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.